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The real deal on cage eggs and layer hen welfare

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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Monday, 11 September 2023

There’s been a lot of noise around cage eggs recently, and for good reason! 

Following the incredibly long-running review (would you believe, eight years!) of national Poultry Standards and Guidelines, Australia's state and territory agriculture ministers recently endorsed the standards, which includes phasing out barren battery cages by 2036. 

This paves the way for a long-overdue phase out of barren battery cages – but clarity is still needed on exactly how and when the standards will be implemented in each state and territory.

A 13-year phase out period is a long time for Australian layer hens to continue to be confined for their entire lives in barren wire cages. While we would like a much earlier phase out date, we’re pleased that the standards have finally been endorsed - it's a step in the right direction. But there is still a long way to go with 32% of Australia's egg production still coming from hens in battery cages (according to ABS data from 2020-2021), and we won’t stop until every layer hen is cage free.

Australian consumers are increasing making kinder choices by buying barn-laid and free-range eggs, with market share for barn-laid and free-range eggs continuing to increase year-on-year. So, who's buying caged eggs and how can you avoid them? Today, caged eggs are predominantly supplied to the service and hospitality industry and used in pre-packaged goods. It's worth asking your local café or restaurant if they use cage free eggs, and reading the label on packaged foods so you don't inadvertently support caged eggs.

Here we explain the real deal around cage eggs and what this means for clucky hens and conscious shoppers.  

What is a battery cage and why are they being phased out?  

Cage eggs come from layer hens confined to battery cages – small, barren wire cages in which each hen has space that’s less than the size of an A4 sheet of paper.  

The RSPCA considers the use of battery cages as one of the gravest animal welfare issues in Australia today, due to the millions of hens affected daily and how severely their welfare is compromised.  

Hens in battery cages spend their days standing on bare wire unable to express their natural behaviours and are more susceptible to chronic health conditions such as osteoporosis due to their lack of exercise. It’s a miserable existence and a production system with so many welfare issues caused by battery cages are inherent, meaning that you simply can’t achieve good layer hen welfare in a battery cage housing system.   

Long overdue, if the Poultry Standards and Guidelines are finally implemented in all Australian states/territories by 2036, it will put Australia in line with over 75% of OECD countries who have already phased out or committed to phase out battery cages.   


What this means for eggs, farmers, and consumers.  

While the standards have been endorsed nationally, each state and territory must still decide on how and when they will implement the standards and transition away from battery cages to other layer hen housing systems between now and 2036.  

This gives cage egg producers up to thirteen years, on top of the eight years the Poultry Standards and Guidelines were being drafted (not to mention the many years before that where a phase out of battery cages has been on the table), to transition to cage-free housing systems, such as barn laid or free-range systems.  

Many producers have already made the move, and the ACT banned the use of battery cages in 2014. Major retailers Coles and Woolworths have committed to removing cage eggs from their shelves completely by 2025 – a move that aligns with consumers’ preferences, with 77% of Aussies supporting the phase out and 87% saying the use of battery cages impact their purchasing decisions. 

What conscious consumers should look for when purchasing eggs.  

Whether purchasing free range or barn laid, any egg that isn’t a cage egg is a better choice. However, labels on packaging can sometimes be misleading, so knowing what good layer hen welfare looks like can help.  

Egg-laying hens are naturally social and inquisitive birds. For hens to have good welfare they need freedom to move around, spread and flap their wings, places to perch, areas to dust bathe, and secluded nests in which to lay their eggs. This means when you are shopping for eggs you can look for producers that provide their hens with quality litter, perches and environmental enrichment, as well as airflow and lighting that mimics day and night hours to promote periods of activity and rest. If an outdoor area is provided, like in free range housing systems, it is important that hens are provided plenty of time to access the area and have an outdoor area that provides hens enough space to explore with lots of shelter and palatable vegetation. Hens can be provided a good quality life in both barn-laid and free-range housing systems as long as the indoor and possibly outdoor environments are well-managed and provide hens the opportunity to perform their normal behaviours freely.  

Of course, we recommend looking for RSPCA Approved eggs if they’re available in your local shops.  The RSPCA Approved certification means that the producer is regularly assessed to ensure they are meeting the detailed requirements of the RSPCA Approved Standards for layer hens, which provides hens with higher welfare standards than those legally required, including the provisions mentioned above and much more. 

Your choices matter. 

We say this often because it’s the truth. Right now, YOU have the power to drive change by pushing for the phase out of cage eggs in your state/territory by letting your Members of Parliament and Agriculture Minister know why you support a phase out of battery cages, and when you want the phase out to occur. Until each state and territory embeds the Poultry Standards into their respective legislation, layer hens may continue to be confined to barren battery cages beyond 2036 in some jurisdictions. In the meantime, your choices at the checkout matter. Purchasing cage-free egg products sends a strong message to the producers and retailers that Australians do not support the use of barren battery cages and that layer hens should not be suffering. 


Interested in learning more?

Cracking Egg Labelling | Latest News | RSPCA Approved


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